Flora McKnight’s early menopause brought her to Antarctica!

Article by
Aisling Grimley.

Many women going through night sweats and hot flushes wish they could live in a freezer or be transported to Antarctica - not many actually get to Antarctica but Flora McKnight did! Read how she fulfilled a lifelong dream and had an incredible adventure sparked by early menopause.

As night sweats increased so did a dream of visiting Antarctica

I woke up in a sweat after yet another restless night. “I wish I was in the Antarctic” I muttered to myself while jumping out of bed to rush to stand in front of the freezer.

I showed all the signs and symptoms in my early thirties for “the change” but no doctor would test me. One doctor eventually trusted my instinct and finally, at the age of 38, I was diagnosed with peri-menopause. Many women who have suffered through or are still going through “the change” will understand that the night sweats are unbearable at times. Give me the moodiness or forgetfulness any day but please, not the dreaded night sweats!

So that’s how the journey of a lifetime began for me. As the sweats increased so too did my dreams of visiting Antarctica and as if by magic, a Facebook sponsored story directed me to New Horizon Expeditions website where they were organising a special once off trip to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Excitedly I clicked on the link and was completely drawn in. I had goose bumps reading about it and not only that but the date of the trip co-incided with my 40th birthday! Immediately I registered my interest and as soon as the information pack came back I knew that this was it, now or never, go for it woman, be cool! Booked, deposit paid, no turning back. 

A year and a half to prepare - take me to Antarctica via "The Ushuaia"

I had a year and a half to prepare for my trip. Slowly paying off lump sums, purchasing base layers, mid layers, outer layers, gloves, hats, ski socks etc. I even went to Finland to buy an extra warm down jacket in case I might be cold there. (Heaven forbid!)

Wednesday 28th Jan 2015. I stood at the agreed meeting point waiting for my fellow passengers and group leader to arrive. Now I can be a little bit of a worrier and so obviously thoughts started to enter my head like “what if this is a scam?”, “yer man has legged it with all my money”, “may as well go home now and hide in the fridge for 3 weeks”. Finally I spotted our group leader waving at me from the check in desk; drama over, take me to Antarctica!

Long journey to Buenos Aires for a two day stopover then on to Ushuaia (The End of the World) for another stopover and this was where we boarded our ship “The Ushuaia”. The build-up of anticipation from the airport right to this moment is indescribable. We had all waited so long for this moment and could barely contain our excitement. I myself shed a few tears but put it down to the dodgy hormones! Our leader kitted us out in magnificent “Shackleton 100” body warmers and matching hats. We were the envy of the voyage, everyone wanted one! We felt so special to be part of this wonderful expedition.

That “special” feeling continued as we slowly made our way to The Great White Continent via the notorious Drake Passage. Sea sickness comes in waves… Great, big, 30 to 40ft waves!! Some were affected more than others but luckily I was upright in the bar by later that evening drugged up with ginger capsules and dunking Jacobs ginger snaps in to my ginger tea! I shared a small cabin with a lovely German girl who obviously felt the cold more than I did and kept turning up our little heater full blast. As soon as she was asleep I would creep out of my bunk and turn it down again. This saga continued throughout the whole journey with neither of us commenting or asking “do you mind?” It was just the way it was and we were both happy with the set up! 

Iceberg, Straight Ahead - the most spectacular scenery

As we cleared the passage we gained confidence in our sea legs and all were upright by the time a call of “ICEBERG, STRAIGHT AHEAD” could be heard from the bridge. We all rushed out on deck and sighted our very first iceberg in the distance. We were well and truly on our way South.

We made several landings over the next few days. Penguin colonies at Gourdin Island - Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie. We observed them go about their business picking up stones and feeding their chicks. Brown Bluff on Antarctic Sound was our first Continental landing and pretty special for all of us. Hydrugga Rocks, where we saw our first Fur and Weddell Seals. We sailed through the Lemaire Channel with views of massive glaciers on either side of our ship. The most spectacular scenery I shall never forget.

Our most Southerly point @ 65.15 degrees brought us to Wordie House on Winter Island. The house of James Wordie, Shackleton’s geologist, is kept as a historical site for the Antarctic Treaty system.

Zodiac crusing while chased by Leopart seals

From there we moved on to Vernadsky, a Ukrainian Research Station. The station first discovered the hole in the Ozone layer! The station had a wee bar where a bottle of whiskey was produced and a rendition of “The little pot stove” was sung by Frank Nugent. (Mountaineer & explorer and member of the Irish South Arís - Irish Antarctic Adventure team which attempted to sail a James Caird replica lifeboat named Tom Crean from Elephant Island to South Georgia.) We were privileged to have him along with us on our trip.

Speechless at Paradise Bay

Pleneau Island saw us zodiac cruising through hundreds of icebergs of all shapes and sizes while being chased by Leopard Seals! At Paradise Bay (aptly named) we cruised through the calmest of sea gazing at the huge glaciers all around us. I don’t think a word was spoken from any of us other than the odd “wow” and you could almost hear the gulps as people tried to swallow the lump in their throat. 

What a way to celebrate your 40th birthday

A visit to the Argentine owned Brown Base, named after Irish born Admiral William Brown (creator of the Argentine Navy), saw us climb to the top of a snow covered steep hill and slide on our bums back down! A truly unique experience and yes, this was the day of my 40th birthday. What a way to celebrate!

On Deception Island we climbed a black glacier covered in volcanic ash. Walker Bay gave us our first sighting of Elephant Seals. Pendulum Cove saw a few brave souls take the polar plunge which of course I participated in!

Antarctica is often imagined to be a quiet, solemn, white continent yet it is far from that. The thunderous echoes of falling glaciers, the barks from the seals, the nattering from the penguins, the blows from whales, the many birds swooping overhead, the clear crisp icy blue of the glaciers, the aquamarine of the sea at the base of each iceberg, the browns and greys of the rocks, the black volcanic ash, the red from the krill, the pink from guana (penguin poo!) all contributed to the amazing sounds and sights of this wonderful, beautiful, inspiring Continent.

I feel privileged to have spent time on this unspoilt continent. Privileged to have spotted Orcas, a Skua attack and kill a penguin chick, a school of dolphins play beside our ship at night disturbing the phosphorescent in the water which gave us a transfixing display that can only be described as the Aurora of the sea. Privileged to have met some amazing new friends and to have gained a small insight to the harsh conditions our heroes Shackleton and Crean endured.  

Did I fulfil my dreams? Absolutely. Did I fulfil my purpose? Absolutely. Well, if only for a short time during the polar plunge and sneaky behaviour with a cabin heater but never mind, life blows hot and cold ~

“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all”. Sir Ernest Shackleton.  

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